PLAYBILL PLAYLIST: Once Upon a Time in New York City Songwriters Pick Songs that Define "City Livin'"

By Michael Gioia
November 19, 2013

Once Upon A Time In New York City, the concert series featuring a slate of brand-new songs about the Big Apple, makes its 54 Below debut Nov. 19. In celebration of the concert, the songwriters of the series pick songs that define "City Livin'" as part of Playbill.com's Playbill Playlist.



The 9 PM concert features over a dozen world-premiere songs by established and emerging musical theatre writers, performed by a roster of Broadway stars.

Performers include Nick Cearley (The Skivvies), Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody), Molly Hager (Fat Camp), Alexander Sage Oyen, Lewis Grosso (Newsies), Jeremy Jordan (Newsies, "Smash"), Dennis Michael Keefe, Lauren Marcus, Chris Miller, Bonnie Milligan, Chelsea Packard (Hands on a Hardbody), Rob Rokicki, George Salazar (Godspell, Here Lies Love), Analise Scarpaci (Matilda The Musical), Jahn Sood, Sam Tedaldi, Katie Thompson, Nathan Tysen, Micah Burgess, Amanda Flynn, Rachel Lee and more.

Writers contributing new songs to the concert include Dan Acquisto and Sammy Buck (Like You Like It), Anna Ty Bergman and Alexander Sage Oyen, Jeff Bowen ([title of show], Now. Here. This.), Carmel Dean (Johnny & The Sprites, Songs of Innocence & Experience) and Jenny Stafford, Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody, Bring It On), David Kirshenbaum (Vanities, Summer of '42), Lauren Marcus (singer-songwriter, "Magpie"), Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting, The Burnt Part Boys), Eric Price (Hello Out There) and Will Reynolds (The Greenwood Tree), Rob Rokicki (Love, NY; Strange Tails), Jahn Sood, and Katie Thompson ("So You Think You Can Dance," R.R.R.E.D.), among others.

In celebration of the evening — which spotlights New York City — the songwriters, via email, share their favorite song that defines what it's like to live in the Big Apple and tell us why it made the list.

According to press notes, "Listen as [songwriters] tell their tales of the City both in song and in story; share in the ups and downs of city life, from the day they moved to Manhattan to their favorite spot on the island."

The concert is produced and hosted by Jennifer Ashley Tepper and benefits The Actors Fund. Musical direction is by Joshua Zecher-Ross.

54 Below is located at 254 West 54th Street. For more information and tickets, priced $30-$40, call (866) 468-7619 or visit 54Below.com.

Jahn Sood: "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" (Leonard Cohen). In this oblique eulogy to Janis Joplin, written after her death in 1970, Cohen celebrates the beauty of a person, a moment and the experience of living as an artist in New York City, and at the same time, is brazen enough to tell her he has discarded her like a "fallen robin." In a few phrases, Cohen depicts a world that is visceral, real and in perfect unison: sacred and profane. Now that I'm here, I know this city is the same way — it feels as much like transcendence as disease. No song has more perfectly captured the spirit of New York.

Sammy Buck: "On Broadway" (Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil in collaboration with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). This song, especially as the opening of the 1979 movie "All That Jazz," is the reason I wanted to go into theatre, which was what New York represented to me as a kid traveling from Houston, TX. This clip also happens to be the only part of the movie my mom let me watch when I was 11, given how "adult" the rest of it was. Luckily, it was 1981 and we had cable before there were parental controls, so I binge-watched and became obsessed with the movie and knew that this world would be in my future… Except the whole open-heart surgery and dying part.

Jenny Stafford: "The Hot Drumming Subway Man" (Jenny Stafford and Nikos Tsakalakos). Not at all based on a true story (ahem!), I chose it because it shows how complete strangers can become a meaningful part of your life in NYC. I swear, I fall in love with someone new every time I turn a corner in this city.

Rob Rokicki: "Left and Leaving" (The Weakerthans). The song is called "Left and Leaving" from the album of the same name by the incredible Canadian band The Weakerthans. The city is personified as an old acquaintance, and it's filled with beautiful images and metaphors. It's about so many things: loss, choice, about those we leave and that leave us. For me it's also about how we, and the city, are always changing (for better or worse) and how we're haunted by the past and the decisions we've made. Though the line "We meet here for our dress rehearsal to say, I wanted it this way" isn't specifically about the "biz," I find it particularly powerful.

David Kirshenbaum: "Arthur's Theme" (Christopher Cross, Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen). There are better songs, and certainly more meaningful ones, but personally, the one that I always associate with New York — and I don't think it's just because I'm a child of the '80s — is the Christopher Cross-Burt Bacharach-Carole Bayer Sager-Peter Allen, Oscar-winning "Arthur's Theme" (aka "Best That You Can Do") from the 1981 romantic comedy with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli. Honestly, I'm not sure if the lyrics make all that much sense — nor am I sure how or why it took four people to write it — but for some reason (and despite the fact that the title character is a raging drunk), the opening montage of this movie has always defined New York City to me. Dudley Moore laughing his ass off in a limo cruising through Times Square at night, as a disembodied high-pitched voice sings about how you can't do better than falling in love in this town... Maybe I should be embarrassed, but it doesn't get better than that.

Nathan Tysen and Chris Miller: "Washington Heights" (Miller and Tysen). "Washington Heights" is a tune from the Miller and Tysen song cycle Fugitive Songs. It was inspired by our six-year stint living together in Washington Heights. Everything we sing about actually happened.

Katie Thompson: "Stayin' Alive" (Bee Gees). This video is hilarious… Oh, those pants! But the LYRICS of this song are what do it for me: "Feel the city breakin', and everybody's shakin', but we're stayin' alive." We're all just talented brothers and sisters in tight pants… stayin' alive in New York City.

Carmel Dean: "What More Do I Need?" (Stephen Sondheim). One of my favorite songs about NYC is Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?" I fell in love with this song back in my musical theatre class in Perth, [Australia], before I'd even been to New York, because musically, it is so evocative and exciting — and, of course, once I had actually moved here, the song took on a whole new dimension. The love-hate relationship we all have with the city is captured so well in the irony of Sondheim's lyrics, and, of course, the ultimate message of this song is that despite its imperfections, when you fall in love in NYC, the city is perfect! Here is the divine Christiane Noll singing "What More Do I Need?"

Lauren Marcus: "Wild World" (Cat Stevens). This may be a strange answer — as I first heard this song when I was really young and sort of misunderstood what it was about — but, as a kid, I totally honed in on a girl leaving, not getting by on a smile, and being somewhere that was not safe… All of which I immediately (in my eight-year-old head) equated with NOT BEING IN THE SUBURBS, which was all I was familiar with at the time. I just envisioned this crazy, scary city life that I so knew I wanted to be a part of, even if Cat Stevens was telling me it was wild. I mean, the song was clearly sung to me and while he was sad I was leaving, he understood that I had to go.

Jeff Bowen: "Another Hundred People" (Stephen Sondheim). About three months after moving to NYC, I was walking down 6th Avenue listening to my Walkman (!), and this song came on my mixtape (!). I felt like I had somehow physically climbed into a song — not just the lyrics, but Pam Myers' voice, those orchestrations… All of it made perfect and beautiful sense.

Eric Price and Will Reynolds: "Rhapsody in Blue" (George Gershwin). "Rhapsody in Blue" is probably more than a song… But New York is probably more than a city. Whatever it is you do here, this is the music that plays while you do it.


Fantasia 2000 - Rhapsody in Blue
by R174

Dan Acquisto: "New York, New York" (Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green). I'd say my New York song is Bernstein-Comden-Green's "New York, New York." It really captures my excitement of coming here for the first time. And, now that I live here, one lyric in particular rings true for me:

"New York, New York, a visitor's place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it's a visitor's place!"

I sometimes sing that lyric to myself on a crowded subway.

Alexander Sage Oyen: "In New York" (Sam Salmond). To me, this song represents being jaded and being hopeful, in equal amounts, without being cheesy or overly sentimental. Also, the way that the choral parts overlap and end up becoming one, beautiful statement — that's just perfection. Get into Sam Salmond.

Anna Ty Bergman: "Gotta Have You" (The Weepies). After ten years in New York, I moved away. After six months away, I came back. City life is ever-changing but, lately, the sum of my days feels a lot like a sweet indie love song. This song is for you, NYC.